From George Benn’s The History of the Town of Belfast, with an Accurate Account of its Former and Present State (published 1823):
‘The Belfast Incorporated Charitable Society, or as it is more generally denominated the Poor House, for the reception of aged and infirm persons, as well as for the support and instruction of children destitute of protectors, has long remained a noble proof of the general philanthropy which prevails among the inhabitants of this town. It stands at the extremity of Donegall Street, in an elevated and healthful situation. The ground was granted by the late Marquis of Donegall, the building completed by subscriptions and the produce of a lottery, and first opened for the purposes above stated in the year 1774. Since its commencement, it has preserved annually about three hundred individuals, old and young; the former from want and misery, the latter from idleness and vice. The children are here instructed in the elementary branches of education, till they are capable of being apprenticed out to trades. The old are carefully attended to, being permitted to increase their comforts by their own industry; and it is a proof not less of the instability of fortune than of the great benefits of the establishment, that an individual was lately received into the Poor House who had, in more prosperous times, contributed to its support. All its inmates, varying in number but commonly about three hundred and fifty, are fed and clothed at the expense of the society. The dress of the children is uniform; they walk on the Sabbath Day, hand in hand, to the respective houses of worship; and due care is taken, in every respect, of their moral and religious habits. The whole government of the Institution is conducted in the most methodical manner, and it receives contributions from every denomination of Christians, all being anxious for the continuance of an establishment which is as invaluable to the poor as it is creditable to the opulent.’
In the 18th century Belfast was a small but growing market town and port: as late as 1801 its population stood at just 19,000. Nevertheless, the town’s spirit of enquiry and liberalism can be seen through several developments during this period, such as the publication of what is now the world’s oldest surviving English language daily newspaper, the Belfast News Letter, (started 1737), the creation of the Belfast Academy (now Belfast Royal Academy) in 1785 and the setting up of a library (later to become the Linenhall Library and still extant) three years later. Of interest here today are the origins of another organisation which continues to the present day, the Belfast Charitable Society.
In 1631 Edward Holmes, a former Sovereign of Belfast (as the city’s mayors were called until 1842) left in his will ‘to the poore decayed inhabitants of Belfast 40 pounds.’ This created a fund to which further sums were added over the next hundred years. However by the middle of the 18th century, it was apparent that more was required to assist the poor and needy. Hence in late August 1752 a group of concerned citizens met at an establishment called the George Inn and there resolved ‘to consider a proper way to raise a sum for the building of a poor House & Hospital & a new Church in or near the town of Belfast.’
A site of eight acres for the project was granted by Arthur Chichester, fifth Earl (and later first Marquess) of Donegall, whose family had long owned most of the land on which Belfast developed. The funds required to build the Poor House, at an estimated cost of ₤7,000, were raised through private donations and also by running a lottery based on the model of that already existing in Dublin. Work started promptly and in December 1774 the new premises were officially opened by Lord Donegall with the following accommodation: seven beds for the sick, four double beds for the beggars, twenty-two double beds for the poor and four single beds for vagrants.
The building’s design has an interesting history. Both the Scottish-born architect Robert Mylne and his former draughtsman and clerk Thomas Cooley submitted proposals, but eventually the person responsible was a local amateur, Robert Joy (1722-1785). He and his brother Henry were co-proprietors of the aforementioned Belfast News Letter, which had been founded by their father Francis Joy; they were also uncles of the United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken. The siblings were among the key figures behind the Poor House’s foundation and hence it is understandable that Robert Joy should have been permitted to have the final say in its design. However, extant drawings by Mylne indicate that his work provided a basis for the eventual structure. Corridors off a passage behind the entrance hall, for example, retain walled-up Tuscan columns, part of what was once an open-air colonnade, a feature of Mylne’s scheme. On the other hand, Joy replaced the dome and lantern proposed by Mylne with an octagonal stone tower and spire rising behind the brick facade the appearance of which mimics that of a Palladian country house. Despite the spire, the church which was originally intended to be part of the scheme was never built.
It is instructive, if a little disturbing, to read the role played by the Poor House’s more youthful occupants in the establishment of the cotton industry in Ulster. This account is taken from Philip Dixon Hardy’s 1820 publication The Northern Tourist:
‘In 1771, at which time there was not a single cotton loom in the whole North of Ireland, the late Robert Joy conceived the scheme of introducing into this then desponding kingdom the cotton manufacture which had proved an unfailing source of industry and consequent opulence to the sister country. Having, in conjunction with Thomas M’Cabe, suggested that the spinning of cotton yarn might, as an introductory step to the establishment of the manufacture, be at once a fit and profitable employment for the children in the Belfast Poor-house, several of them were set to work…And shortly after an experienced spinner was brought over by Mr Joy from Scotland, to instruct the children in the Poor-house. Also, under the same direction, and at the expense of the gentlemen mentioned, a carding machine was erected at Mr Grimshaw’s, to go by water, which was afterwards removed to the Poor-house, and wrought by hand. A firm was now formed of the original projectors, and others, under the name of Joys, M’Cabe and M’Cracken, who contracted with the same charitable institution for the employment of a number of its children, as well as for the use of its vacant rooms…In less than ten years from their first introduction in the country, several thousand looms were employed in the manufacture of cotton in the towns of Belfast, Lisburn and Hillsborough.’
During its first decades of operation, the Poor House looked after inmates well, not least by providing them with all necessary clothing and food. With regard to the latter, daily meals included bread, cheese, milk, broth, rice and porridge. Beef and veal were added to the diet on Sundays. On Sundays, the meal included beef and veal, this at a time when around a third of the country’s population lived on potatoes and buttermilk.
Local physicians attended the sick in the Poor House, their services provided without charge, and there was also a dispensary where the same doctors would see the unwell from outside the house on Tuesdays and Saturdays. In 1794 the Belfast Charitable Society opened Ireland’s first Fever Hospital in a rented building on Factory Row (now Berry Street) and soon afterwards, as a means of raising funds, it started a cemetery in the city. Other methods of generating income included taking responsibility for Belfast’s water supply, which it did from 1795 to 1840, and then charging households for access to fresh water.
By the time the society gave up this role (in return for financial compensation), much else had changed, not least new Poor Laws and a more active role by the state in the provision of assistance to those citizens unable to support themselves. However, the Poor House remained true to its original purpose and indeed expanded premises during the course of the 19th century. In 1821 and 1825 respectively extensions were made behind each of the end wings and then in 1867 a block was built at right angles to these; five years later it was linked to the rest of the property by further additions thereby creating a quadrangle as had originally been envisaged by Robert Mylne.
After the Belfast Charitable Society celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2002, a decision was taken to build a new nursing home elsewhere in the city. The old property was handed over on a seventy-year lease to another charity, Helm Housing Association, the funds thus generated allowing for a programme of necessary renovation. Since then the building has been shared between the two organisations, offering sheltered accommodation and operating as an old persons’ home. This year marks the 240th anniversary of the opening of Belfast’s Poor House (now called Clifton House), the oldest complete surviving building in the city, a wonderful example of 18th century philanthropy, a landmark structure and yet somehow little known even by the local population.